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Evaluating the Cowboys in Free Agency

Greg Hardy - Cowboys Free Agent Addition

The free agency frenzy has died down with the Cowboys taking a methodical and balanced approach. For all the hoopla surrounding the NFL’s annual bidding process, the returns on the big signings rarely match the investment. Building a consistently successful team takes more than opening the owners checkbook and writing a number with a long string of zeros behind it. In today’s salary cap world, the best franchises build through the draft and with deft talent evaluation. The draft is the best source of young, inexpensive (relatively speaking) talent. In order to draft well, teams need to maintain a value-based approach. In other words, they need to not reach for a player that fills a need on the roster simply because of the position he plays. It happens all the time. The top teams routinely fill their needs in free agency with solid players signed to cap friendly contracts. With this in mind, let’s evaluate how the Cowboys have done so far.

What they lost (contributors):

OLB Bruce Carter, OLB Justin Durant, CB Sterling Moore, DT Henry Melton, DE George Selvie, RT Jeremy Parnell, RB DeMarco Murray, WR Dwayne Harris, FB Tyler Clutts

It also seems likely that DE Anthony Spencer and ILB Rolando McClain will join the ranks of the departed. Each of these players played a significant role on a 12-4 team that won the NFC East and a playoff game, including the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year and leading rusher Murray. Bruce Carter led the league in interceptions by a linebacker and Durant led the team in tackles at the time of his injury. Harris was the leader on special teams and a solid contributor on offense, especially as a blocker. So, with the loss of these players, how did the Cowboys choose to replace them and fill the many holes that their departure created?

What they added:

DE Greg Hardy, OLB, Andrew Gachkar, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Jasper Brinkley, FB Jed Collins, RB Darren McFadden, CB Corey White

It is important to remember that the losses on defense came from a unit that showed great improvement from 2013, but still ranked in the bottom half of the league.  So while the desire is to not lose your own players, the reality is that these players can be upgraded upon. Hardy is obviously the biggest name and one could argue that he is a big ticket addition. Indeed he is. Hardy, from a football standpoint (social commentary aside), is a massive upgrade to the defense. He has produced 27 sacks in his past 32 games played. One of the main reasons the Cowboys season ended that January afternoon in Green Bay was their lack of pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Hardy will fix this problem as soon as he steps on the field, whenever that may be. Also of note is that his contract contains no guaranteed money. His big paydays come as a result of his performance.

Also on defense, the Cowboys replenished the linebacker ranks with inexpensive veterans. The teams desire to move Sean Lee to the weakside and maximize his playmaking skills is strengthened by the addition of Brinkley. He is a physical run stuffing middle linebacker who will see significant time on first and second down. Gachkar replaces Harris’ special teams contributions on coverage units while showing potential to be good player in the regular defense. Rivers is a former #9 overall draft pick looking to resurrect his promising career. White, who was released by the Saints in a cost cutting move fills the spot vacated by Moore. He fits the cover-2 style of defense that Rod Marinelli prefers to play.

On offense, the loss of Murray looms large. Yet the Cowboys made the painful and smart decision to not match the money Philadelphia offered to him. History says he will come up far short of his totals from last year which makes him a risky investment at $8.4 million per season. In his place, the Cowboys added Darren McFadden, the fourth overall pick in the 2008. He will likely share carries with Ryan Williams and whichever running back the Cowboys will likely select in the upcoming draft. At tackle, Dallas made the correct decision to resign Doug Free and let Parnell walk in free agency. While Parnell seems to have room to improve, Free is the better player now. His return ensures that the NFL’s best offensive line returns intact. Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley return along with Terrance Williams ensuring Tony Romo’s top three wide receivers are in place. Harris’ role on offense will not be missed greatly, but his presence as a returner still needs to be addressed. While neither Collins or Clutts is a great lead blocker, Collins offers more in the passing game and must be accounted for near the goal line; whereas Clutts was a non-factor.

Overall, the Cowboys have fared well in free agency while avoiding the temptation to spend big money. Dallas would be more than happy if Hardy earns every bit of what his contract allows because that means he would have wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Despite the potential for Hardy to make a lot of money, none of the additions the Cowboys made carries significant guaranteed money. Yet everyone of these players has a chance to make significant contributions to a winning team. They also fill holes in the roster which enables the Cowboys to find value in the draft at any position and alleviates the pressure to choose players of need. This approach to free agency is solid if unspectacular, which is exactly what the Cowboys needed to do.

Up next….The Cowboys Draft Approach

Ben Hammons



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